Omega, the Alpha: A Brief Look at Menhaden in the Chesapeake

Nothing about the Atlantic menhaden, otherwise known as Brevoortia tyrannus, makes it particularly appealing to the everyday consumer. The fish is diminutive, bony, and not visually appealing enough to be contained in a domestic receptacle. Most notably, it possesses one of the more unfavorable flavors present among Chesapeake Bay’s culinary contributions. Yet, its presence lingers in every grocery store aisle and even in the pharmacy. It is used to feed livestock, fertilize soil, and produce supplements for valuable Omega-3 fatty acids linked to brain development. The presence of the Atlantic menhaden is therefore linked to not only the health of Virginia, but perhaps to the nutritional maintenance of its very intelligence.

Despite its keystone importance, Atlantic fishermen have a spotty history of maintaining sustainable conservation practices, but generally corrected their overconsuming ways by retiring the majority of their aggressive practices during the 1990s – that is, except for the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the last menhaden processing plant on the Atlantic coast still stands in Reedville. Since reaching its peak in the late 1970s, the Chesapeake’s menhaden population has steadily declined, decreasing by nearly 88% over the previous fifty years per the Maryland Department of Natural Resources [1].

The primary reason for this continued decline is the presence of the Omega Protein Corporation, a firm for menhaden fishing founded in 1913 and currently responsible for 90% of menhaden fishing in American territorial waters. They are responsible for maintaining the menhaden plant in Reedville (along with two others on the Gulf of Mexico) and have been run by the Cooke Aquaculture Group (based in New Brunswick, Canada) since 2017. Omega has over 1,150 employees, contributes somewhere around $88 million annually to the Virginia economy, and is especially critical in supporting the historic fishing communities of Virginia’s Northern Neck. However, Omega also has a history of overharvesting and violating the conservation measures imposed on them by the state of Virginia. The corporation is annually allotted 112 million pounds of harvestable menhaden, almost entirely taken from the docile waters of the Chesapeake, but gained the attention of the Trump Administration in 2019 for knowingly exceeding the new 2017 limit imposed by the Atlantic State Marines Fishery Commission. No executive or legislative action was taken in response to this incident [2, 3, 4, 5].

Generally, concerns about the behavior of Omega Protein derive not from the issue of international monopolization of domestic waters but instead from the uncertain future of Chesapeake menhaden populations, which some environmental groups like Environmental Quality Resources LLC go so far as to label as “the single most important fish in the western Atlantic Ocean.” Menhaden are what is known as a “keystone species,” or one that is integral in linking different trophic levels of the Chesapeake’s food chain. To illustrate, menhaden carry the energy from plankton and other low-level organisms to any number of larger species, including dolphins, sea birds, and whales, all of which are integral to coastal Virginia’s environmental tourism, as well as striped bass, which are even more important given the $500 million industry centered on their fishing in the Chesapeake. Populations of menhaden, especially the juveniles necessary to maintain a healthy stock, are declining due to overharvesting. However, the exact extent of this impact is still fairly unknown, which has inspired some legislators to take action in support of ecological research [6, 7].

Virginia Beach’s Tim Anderson, former state delegate for District 83, made menhaden conservation one of his largest policy issues during his time in office and presented a bill in 2022 that proposed a moratorium on Omega Protein’s fishing efforts in order to assess the extent of their impact on future populations. Anderson cited Omega Protein’s adverse economic effects, including declining harvest rates for angler fishing of larger catch and declines in tourism due to fish spills that scattered Virginia coastlines with the rotting, reflective bodies of thousands of menhaden. Anderson’s proposed legislation was tabled in committee. In response, Anderson produced a new bill that attacked what he deemed as the real source of the problem: political contributions from foreign-owned corporations, an unsubtle allusion to the influence of Omega Protein Corporation in Richmond [8].

For each of Virginia’s last four governors, Omega Protein has contributed $25,000 to their inaugural committees. During the 2023 election cycle alone, the corporation donated nearly $70,000 to both Republican and Democratic candidates. Since 1996, the company has donated $813,783 to Virginia elections, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, and currently retains five lobbyists. The result of these efforts? Legislators and governors alike will stand pat on the issue and, at most, pass measures such as the Virginia Marine Resource Commission’s 2022 memorandum, through which Omega Protein voluntarily agreed to abstain from fishing within a mile of Virginia shores, without any real punitive threats to enforce their agreement. Because, as most environmental issues do, the political conflict reduces to one of economic pragmatism against ecological idealism. Most of Omega Protein’s allies cite the corporation’s sustained economic stimulation to a historically impoverished and rural region of Virginia as the reason why restrictive measures would be harmful, and this fact is sufficient to maintain the status quo [7, 9, 10].

Omega Protein has conformed to Virginia’s standards since the 2019 incident, but this is not enough to allay the criticisms of the coastal residents most opposed to their presence. Menhaden populations are inseparable from the Chesapeake food chain and the very identity of Eastern Virginia. The question of how far Virginians are willing to go, both as citizens and legislators, in order to maintain this so-called identity is one without a clear answer, just as Richmond lacks clear intentions on finding an answer anytime soon.

Sources

1 Chesapeake Bay Foundation
2 Omega Protein
3 Zippia
4 Seafood Source
5 AP News
6 Environmental Quality Resources
7 Virginia Mercury
8 WHSV 3
9 Bay Journal 
10 VPAP